Essays: Talking horse sense |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Talking horse sense

THE SAME 346,728 scientifically minded readers who wrote in to point out that I don’t know the difference between silicon and silicone have all written in again to point out that I don’t know the difference between silicon and silica. Relax, I was just testing you. Silicon is a tetravalent non-metallic element. Silica is a dessert made of flavoured whipped cream.

Dorian Williams, commentating at the Badminton Horse Trials (BBC1), got the week off to a flying start. ‘Ooh! OOGH!’ he would cry as a horse jumped a fence. ‘What a clever little horse this is!’

Perpetually ecstatic at the spectacle of horses completing tasks which in a state of nature would never occur to them as needing to be performed, Dorian always seems to assume that the horse derives the same satisfaction from a clear round as he does. But if the horse, instead of the rider, were to be the recipient of the inevitable question from David Vine, what would be the answer?

‘Well, David, I’m glad you asked me that. Actually I felt bloody awful. Busting my gut to jump over a 10-ft fence is bad enough. Given the choice I’d just go round the side. But doing the whole thing with a fat lump sitting on your back is adding injury to insult. Got an oat?’

At least the horses abide by the rules. If a horse throws its rider into the water-jump and kicks him in the head when he tries to clamber out, the horse does not then turn to the referee with its front legs flung wide and a face radiating injured innocence. Horses are not like soccer players. Sportsnight Special: England v. Brazil (BBC1) was billed as a ‘friendly’ match, which apparently meant that the Brazilians were prepared to forgo any use of hypodermics, flick-knives, bear-traps or hand-grenades, contenting themselves with merely tripping, grabbing, gouging and scything.

To my uninstructed eye, the most formidable Brazilian player was the one dressed in black. Never once touching the ball, he led his team to the brink of victory just by blowing a whistle. I was especially impressed by the way he stuck up for his team-mates even when they appeared to be in the wrong.

I don’t know the rules very well, but I assume it was a misdemeanour when an English forward, loose with the ball in Brazil’s penalty area, suddenly found a Brazilian defender sitting on his shoulders. The man in black was reluctant to blame his team-mate for this prank — wise forbearance, in my view, since if the offender had been sent off then the Brazilian team, reduced in numbers, might have had to resort to unsportsmanlike tactics.

American football is usually supposed to be insanely overblown compared with soccer, but sometimes you wonder. Still, Woody Hayes, subject of the last instalment of The Americans (BBC2), is undeniably a rococo personality, Legendary coach of the Ohio State college football team (annual budget 11 million dollars), Woody is the living embodiment of all-American values. The angrier he gets at his players, the more they love him.

Once Woody got so angry he hit himself in the eye. They loved him all the more. I must say I developed a soft spot for him myself. The soft spot was probably somewhere in my cerebral cortex, because when you think about it for a while you realise that Woody is really pretty awful. What makes him seem momentarily charming is the inescapable fact that the people preaching the opposite set of values are even more awful.

The nice thing about Lew Grade’s peerage is that long after getting it he goes on trying to earn it. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Comedy of Errors (ATV) was easily the cleverest, and probably the best, Shakespeare production I have ever seen on the box. Adapting his own 1976 stage production, Trevor Nunn tricked it out with song, dance and a prodigality of business. Exposition got things off to a slow start; there were probably a few switch-offs while the plot was assembling its belongings. But once the action proper started, you couldn’t take your eyes or ears off what was happening.

Ephesus was updated to roughly the present, with all power to the Colonels (mirror glasses, epaulettes like little beds in bad taste) and tourists wearing shirts outside their trousers. The sea-front shops and cafés were full of nice, fussy props for people to throw at one another and get tangled up in. Spontaneous bursting into song-and-dance routines seemed perfectly acceptable in such a context. I wasn’t all that struck with the music, which fell halfway between Berlin and Broadway: Mahagonny on the Roof. Also there are times when Nunn reminds you too forcibly of Tyrone Guthrie: so much vitality goes on that you start feeling disappointed when a servant hit by his master does only three somersaults instead of six.

But all that aside, Nunn has ideas as fast as Edison, and most of them point up the text. He is very good at pursuing a comic notion throughout the night. The running gag with the handcuffs and the collapsible chair, for example, was the kind of thing that pleased Mack Sennett, and there is no reason to think that it would not have pleased Shakespeare too.

Judi Dench and Francesca Annis are no great shakes as singers, but they are wizardly with the spoken word; equipped as always with the round tones that thrill, Barbara Shelley vamped tremendously as the Courtesan; and the Boys from Syracuse (there was once a Broadway musical called that, so Mr Nunn is not the first to desecrate this temple) were both excellent, although which was Roger Rees and which Mike Gwilym I am still not sure. Cutaway shots to the audience very plausibly revealed it to be universally enraptured.

The first Arena (BBC2) to deal with television dealt with it well. The point at issue was the validity of documentary drama. Even Tony Garnett seemed to realise that he is taking a lot on himself when he declines to reveal his sources and asks us to accept his versions of the truth on trust. Jack Gold, most estimable of all programme makers, is a bad logician. ‘There is no such thing,’ he declared, ‘as an objective documentary.’ The popularity of such a viewpoint among unobjective people should be enough to tip him off. Denis Mitchell has a harder head: no matter how good ‘Cathy Come Home’ was, he announced, it was still propaganda.

Meanwhile, down in Rhodesia, the facts are dramatising themselves. Panorama (BBC1) sent in a crew to film Fire Force at its daily task of killing guerrillas. The commentary did its best to be objective — meaning that without being too certain of what should happen it concentrated on what was happening. Since what was happening was very confused, the programme was inconclusive. The ring of truth is rarely loud or clear: more like a small alarm clock in another room.

The Observer, 23rd April 1978